The phrase “there’s no use in complaining” must not translate in Finland. About six years ago, Helsinki artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen struck upon the idea that the vast amounts of energy expended on complaining could be turned into something creative, and they decided to try to create a literal interpretation of the Finnish term “Valituskuoro,” meaning “complaints choir.” The couple offered the concept up to various institutions where they would be presenting their other art, with the Springhill Institute in Birmingham, England finally accepting after several other rejections. What resulted was an 18-person choir singing aloud their grievances—from the infrequency of the bus to how society has changed for the worse.
The success of the Birmingham choir led to Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen being invited to other cities like Copenhagen and Tokyo to form choirs. Repeating the same process of forming a choir quickly with whomever was willing to participate—young or old, musically talented or untalented—yielded similarly successful results, being both curiously entertaining to the audience and cathartic for the participants.
Of course, Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen couldn’t complain everywhere at once, so through the project’s website they began encouraging others to form their own choirs by following the same process. Before long choirs of varying sizes began sprouting up all over the world; there are now groups in areas as far-flung as Juneau, Alaska and Tasmania. In short, it’s become something of a phenomena.
Danish filmmaker Ada Bliggard Søby followed the two artists to Chicago and Singapore to capture something of their process through filming the formation of two choirs. (Agit readers may know Søby for her work on Thee Oh Sees’ “Meat Step Lively” video.) But while there is plenty of interviews with the parties involved and factual information, rather than shoot a straight documentary, Søby created something more impressionistic. She films people complaining unrelated to the choirs and Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen rowing through icy waters, as well as evocative landscapes of the locales. At 60 minutes, the film, recently released on DVD with two CDs of songs from the various choirs, doesn’t begin to attempt to tell the entirety of the Complaints Choir story, but rather to show something more evocative about the act of vocalizing complaints.
That the Singapore choir actually runs into difficulty with the police when it comes to performing as a result of some of its members being born in Malaysia adds greater significance to the act, as does some footage of a religious organization, Complaints Free World, and its competing ideology. But more often the message conveyed is that nobody is without complaints, yet once they are thrown out in the world, it is easier to see them for what they are.